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How small can computers get?

If computers are getting smaller and smaller, is it possible that we’ll get one small enough to implant into us so we don’t have to carry anything round…or is there a ‘smallest’ size that they can be due to the actually amount of matter needed?
Louisa Draper from London (Age 25-34)

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2 Responses

  1. There are loads of different types of computer, some that are desktop size, some laptop size and there are even more that are tiny. Most of the ones that you see around you conform to particular specifications for size, shape and power consumption for example.

    As at the most basic level a computer is made from a set of switches that can do a bit of arithmetic an Englishman called Alan Turing who worked at breaking German codes during the war suggested that hypothetical machines can be called computers. He spent some time thinking about it and didn’t quite come up with the answer but recently another very clever man called Alex Smith did work it out theoretically. This unfortunately is all clever maths and not really practical.

    Practical computers can be nano scale but not capable of very much so a company called picotux claim to have made the world’s smallest computer, but you can place a pretty safe bet that in 5 years time this will be huge.

  2. A computing device of today generally requires a few things to be able to operate. A power source providing electricity is one, a set of transistors for processing and storage another. In addition, computers are useless unless there’s also some ways to get information in and out of the processor or memory.

    Typical modern computers are made from silicon “chips” which include literally tens of millions of transistors. These “chips” are thin and often about 1 centimetre squared. It’s likely a computer could be made from a smaller pieces of silicon at the cost of processing power or speed (the number of transistors would need to be reduced). So yes, I think it is possible to find computers that could be implanted under the skin.

    It’s often thought we would end up with “nano computers” we could inject into our bloodstreams, but it’s unlikely due to the fact that there are limits: the materials we use to create silicon chips, the theoretical limits of the minimum transistor size and spacing, the cost of the machines we need for manufacturing, the wavelength of light required to “photocopy” our computer designs, and so forth.

    However, we do already carry around small computers in our credit and cash point cards. These store our account information on them in an encrypted form, and will communicate this securely with your bank when you type in your PIN number. They are powered by the contacts on the card, or by using electromagnetic induction if the card has no contacts on it. I’d suggest it would be possible to power an implanted computer using some existing power source within our bodies – it’s worthwhile looking to find out how pacemakers are powered, perhaps.

    If your implanted computer needed some information input or output this would be another challenge. Very small steps are being taken by researchers right now for machines to “read the mind” and perform actions based on human thoughts. But these experiments are extremely crude and it’s unlikely we’ll be able to really act based on thoughts we have until we really understand how the mind works.

    Similarly, stimulating thoughts or feelings within the brain are at an early stage of development. Patients with chronic depression, for example, are often helped to feel better with some electric stimulation within the brain using electrical probes but this again is experimental research and often involves trial and error.

    More practical input and output mechanisms are possible, like stimulating muscles or implanting hearing devices in the inner ear. Research into these areas is much more advanced and can provide positive benefits today for lots of patients with severe disabilities. It’s unlikely however that there will be generally and cheaply available mechanisms for more recreational uses for a while.

    So yes, I do feel that implantable miniature computers are possible, but whether people would want them, whether they could be manufactured cheaply and what they would actually do would be other questions worth asking.

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